Why Do Some Songs Give You The Chills?

Scientists are using brain scans to try and find out

Think about the first time you ever heard Asia’s Heat of the Moment, one of my favorite songs of all time. The synths, the poignant lyrics and the novel harmonies combined might have sent shivers running up your spine, all the way to the base of your very cool mullet.

Okay, I’m half kidding and I’ve given you a terrible example. But you might have had the same sensation from some other song, and a group of scientists are from Harvard, Wesleyan and the University of Southern California are scanning brains to figure out why. They hope their research will help scientists understand the evolutionary origin of musical aesthetics.

“Perhaps one of the reasons why music is a cross-culturally indispensable artifact is that it appeals directly through an auditory channel to emotional and social processing centers of the human brain,” lead author Matthew Sachs from the University of Southern California writes in the study. The sound and emotional parts of the brain might be linked, which is why we like listening to music so much.

The group started by screening questionnaires from over 200 students in the Boston area, ultimately settling on 10 in each of two groups: a “chill” group—people who felt chills when listening to their favorite songs, and a “no chill” group—people who didn’t. (Normally, I’d picture a “no chill” group as gang of college frat boys blasting Drake in a basement. That wasn’t the case here.)

After scanning each group’s brains with a technique called diffusion tensor imaging, the scientists noticed some differences. The Guardian reports:

Basically, the chill group’s brain wiring better connected the sound part of the brain to the feelings part and the “how-I-should-feel-about-those-feelings” part.

The Guardian also reports that the study is in its early stages, and as your inner skeptic should note, results from a study observing only 20 people probably isn’t worth betting your house on.

The scientists point this out in their paper, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. But they also note that their results agree with prior studies, and hope their research will inform future research on how we evolved to like music so much as a species.

I just hope to evolve to get Heat of the Moment unstuck from my head.